Story by: Joseph Ostapiuk
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — As the coronavirus (COVID-19) rolls through New York City, quarantining people in homes across the five boroughs, some victims of domestic violence are being faced with a reality that forces them to be confined with their abusers.
“I think that everyone is stressed and while stress doesn’t cause domestic violence, it could certainly increase the frequency and severity,” said Kimberlina Kavern, the senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon — which operates within the borough’s Family Justice Center.
While social distancing measures are showing promising results across New York, the unintended consequence of Gov. Andrew Cuomo extending the state’s pause through April 29 is that victims of domestic abuse are being mandated to stay within homes that are potentially unsafe.
The new reality is causing a shift in the way domestic violence advocates support victims.
“We are sort of all-hands on deck to be prepared to serve victims in what comes next,” said Kavern, adding that Safe Horizon is “anticipating that we are in this for the long haul and that it’s likely to get worse.”
In mid-March, Family Justice Centers closed across New York City, as well as the facility in St. George, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and moved to serving victims — including those suffering from domestic violence — via phone and online.
Many Safe Horizon staff are currently working remotely, said Kavern, and all of its programs are still open and accepting new clients.
A main element in the transition of supporting domestic violence victims is the use of Safe Horizon’s 24-hour hotline, though Kavern said hotline calls declined slightly in the beginning of March — something that she said was “to be expected as people transitioned into this new normal of social distancing.”
Recently, however, Safe Horizon’s “safe chat” feature, which allows victims to chat with advocates on their phone or computer, has seen an increase in victims through early April. The increase in the use of the chat, according to Kavern, could be attributed to victims being in close quarters with others and not being able to verbally interact with Safe Horizon staff.
Citywide data from the NYPD from Jan. 1 through March 31 shows that domestic crime is down .6% compared to the same span last year, and that domestic violence crime is down 15.3% during the entire month of March 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
Kavern said that she does not think the dip in crime rate “indicates a decrease in domestic violence,” but rather “indicates a decease in [the] victim’s ability to access services or call 911.”
“You may not be able to call someone for help when you are in a home with your abuser,” Kavern said.
While Staten Island-specific domestic violence data was not available from the NYPD, the Island has had a unique issue with domestic violence in recent years.
The NYPD’s 120th Precinct, which is on the Island’s North Shore, had the ninth-highest amount of domestic violence complaints by precinct in New York City in 2018, and had the seventh-highest amount of domestic violence offenders citywide, according to department data.
In response to the challenges quarantine offers domestic violence victims, the NYPD’s domestic violence officers have begun using phone calls to supplant face-to-face visits with victims, said department spokeswoman Sophia Mason, while also “sharing safety plans and cell phone access with them and carefully setting code words for them to use as they survive in close quarters.”
“The NYPD remains committed to working with all of the NYPD’s government partners to ensure that no one feels disconnected or vulnerable during this period of emergency physical isolation,” Mason said.